One of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts’ most anticipated new plays is Rogelio Martinez’s Wanamaker’s Pursuit, which is receiving its world premiere at the Arden Theatre Company in a strong production directed by Terrence J. Nolen.
Commissioned by the Arden as part of PIFA, Martinez sets his story in 1911 Paris (the festival takes its inspiration from Paris circa 1910-20). It is a city dominated by the artists who have made it their home, including the controversial Spanish modernist Pablo Picasso (who in Shawn Fagan’s performance is an egocentric jerk). It isn’t the new wave of painters, however, that has brought 29 year old Nathan Wanamaker (Jürgen Hooper) to Paris. Instead, he has been sent by his father to purchase new fashions for the family’s popular department store in Philadelphia. Of particular interest to Wanamaker are the groundbreaking designs by Paul Poiret (Wilbur Edwin Henry), the self-proclaimed “Poiret le Magnifique” and the father of modern fashion. Wanamaker doesn’t only covet Poiret’s designs (which are realized in Richard St. Clair’s spectacular costume designs); he wants Poiret’s wife, Denise (Geneviève Perrier), who serves as her husband’s muse and who is accustomed to being the object of male’s attention.
Like people, new plays take some time to mature—and Pursuit is clearly in its infancy. The device Martinez conceives for revealing Wanamaker’s inner thoughts (he writes letters to his recently deceased wife) is awkward and confusing. Sword fights break out in a dress shop for no compelling reason. Though writer Alice B. Toklas is often discussed (primarily as the partner of Gertrude Stein), she is strangely unseen. And as for Philadelphia, well, it’s described as “the city between New York and Washington.”
Martinez succeeds, however, in capturing the excitement of 20th-century Paris, where everything is being born anew, particularly in the worlds of art and fashion. The champions of the new modernist movement are novelist Gertrude Stein (played with marvelous eccentricity by Catharine K. Slusar) and her brother Leo (the magnificent David Bardeen). Together, the Steins have amassed a collection that includes the works of Cézanne, Degas and Picasso, whom Gertrude convinces Nathan to support with a commission. In the performances of Bardeen and Slusar, the Steins captivate our interest far more than Nathan’s pursuit of the lovely Mrs. Poiret.
Wanamaker’s Pursuit isn’t a bad play. Yes, the love story fails to be moving, but Nathan’s conflict between holding on to the past and embracing the future proves far more interesting anyway. A relatively ordinary man in a play filled with larger-than-life characters, the young Wanamaker heir proves to be a perfect representative for Philadelphia, a working-class city between D.C. and the Big Apple that simultaneously cherishes its historical past while moving cautiously into an exciting, if uncertain, future.
Through May 22. $29-$48. Arden Theatre Company, Arcadia Stage, 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org
More PIFA Picks
Wanamaker’s Pursuit isn’t the only PIFA theater offering. At the Kimmel Center’s Innovation Studio is local playwright Seth Rozin’s A Passing Wind (through April 17). Rozin’s first chamber musical, Wind is based on the true story of Joseph Pujol (aka “The Fartiste”) who regaled Parisian audiences with his impressive (and surprisingly musical) ability to control his farts.
Although Rozin is best known as one of the city’s top directors, Wind is only the first of two Rozin plays on city stages this week. The other is Two Jews Walk into a War, which opens this week at InterAct Theater Company, where Rozin serves as artistic director. Rozin describes both plays as “irreverent comedies that elevate ideas and people we tend to dismiss.”
Also at PIFA this week: Dance choreographer Katherine Watson-Wallace and others unveil their latest creation, AUTO: a dance in and on a moving vehicle (April 16-May 1). AUTO is a companion piece to Watson-Wallace’s CAR, which played to sold-out audiences at 2008’s Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Unlike the intimate CAR (in which four audience members sit inside a vehicle), AUTO is a series of performance vignettes staged on four levels of the East Falls Parking Garage. Described by Watson-Wallace as a “choreography of performers, audience members and car” featuring eight dancers, AUTO explores how we communicate while racing down the road at perilously high speeds.
Tickets for all PIFA events are available at pifa.org